Poisonous programmes

December 5, 2003

It has been labelled chewing gum for the eyes, the drug of the nation, an emanation of mankind's vacuity, but what have been television's most tasteless, mind-numbing and vacuous hours?

The THES is inviting academics to take part in a seasonal poll, Box Barbarians , to identify the programme that has done most to undermine British culture. A tentative guide to television lowlights has been compiled with the assistance of a selection of academics whose ire has been raised by programmes ranging from Big Brother to Blue Peter .

Peter Atkins, professor of chemistry at Oxford University, was not the only one to propose news programmes, while Sir Christopher Frayling, rector of the Royal College of Art, picked quiz shows They Think It's All Over and Never Mind the Buzzcocks .

Frank Webster, professor of sociology at City University, nominated daytime television talk shows for their "confessional, hear-my-feelings, opinion-is-of-equal-worth and misinformation-is-no-barrier to this right to be 'respected', mawkish and manipulative programming". This, he felt, was typified by the Jerry Springer Show , a view shared by Fred Inglis, professor of cultural studies at the University of Sheffield.

Professor Inglis insisted: "The most poisonous of all, issuing from America's effluent sources and that nation's revolting mastery of the most saccharine, sickening and brutal shows on earth, is surely the Jerry Springer Show ."

Big Brother was a predictably popular choice. Among the objectors to the national fixation with the housemates was Harry Witchel, research fellow in the department of physiology at the University of Bristol.

"It's gotta be Big Brother !" he said. "Reality TV gives you neither. It is neither good TV nor reality. Get rid of it!"

Gillian Evans, professor of medieval logic at Cambridge University, nominated Life Laundry , in which an "expert" advises which possessions participants should discard for a "better life". "A desk tidied by someone else is the academic's person from Porlock," she said.

Tim Birkhead, professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Sheffield, declared: "Anything that promotes American culture at the present time must be damaging." He nominated The Simpsons .

And so to you. Which TV programme do you feel has done most to undermine British culture? Please visit our website to register your vote at www.thes.co.uk/tvpoll  or email us at tvpoll@thes.co.uk . The THES will make a donation to charity for everyone who registers to vote online.

Over the coming weeks, we will be revealing the televisual demons that haunt the likes of Roger Scruton, Sir Martin Rees and Baroness Greenfield and finding out who nominated football and the BBC's science flagship Horizon.

The results will be published as an antidote to Christmas television in the issue of December 19.

The academics' nominations so far...
(visit Box Barbarians  to vote on the growing list)

  • Big Brother
  • All news, especially BBC News 24
  • Jerry Springer n Party political broadcasts
  • Top Gear
  • The Simpsons
  • National Lottery show
  • Blue Peter
  • Life Laundry
  • The Office
  • Football
  • Sex and the City
  • WifeSwap
  • Pop history programmes
  • Horizon
  • They Think
  • It's All Over
  • Never Mind
  • the Buzzcocks
  • Antiques Roadshow

Your TV nasties?

Trevor Baylis , clockwork radio inventor and behind an initiative to set up invention shops in university cities
" The National Lottery Show : I can't think of anything worse than having to endure the lottery draw on prime-time television. A cage goes around, a ball falls out, some posh presenter says 'number six' and everyone cheers. It draws something from the soul."

Sir Christopher Ondaatje , former financier and Royal Geographical Society council member
"The BBC's coverage of the war in Iraq: I was born a British subject in Ceylon and have fought hard to remain British. The irresponsible, opinionated, negative coverage of the Iraq war by the BBC has done immeasurable harm to the British national identity. It is the culmination of a long process of dilution of Reithian values at the BBC, which once represented a culture unique to Britain."

Valerie Atkinson , department administrator, University of York, and THES columnist
" The Office : Clever, subversive and cruel. I know that my choice will not be a popular one but it makes me squirm so much I can hardly bear to watch. I've observed every sort of crass behaviour possible in the office for too many years to be able to see it as entertainment. And I wonder if anyone ever really thinks they are like David Brent. Rather than exposing every possible kind of 'ism', every real piece of political incorrectness, I fear it may legitimise them."

June Purvis , professor of women's and gender history, University of Portsmouth
" Big Brother : It is the most excruciatingly embarrassing and utterly boring programme I have ever seen. It portrayed young people in Britain as egotistical, bent on pleasure, selfish and concerned only with the minutiae of life. These kinds of programmes exploit young people and pander to a culture that simply wants to be amused."

Bob Brecher , reader in moral philosophy, University of Brighton
"BBC News 24: News is something significant, thus something that demands thinking about. So in offering a repetitive background of 'facts', 24-hour news subverts the possibility of significance. It makes news something akin to piped music in the supermarket."

Susan Bassnett , professor, Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies, University of Warwick, and THES columnist
"Pop history programmes: Cheap and cheerless 'history 4 uz' programmes, where batty people pretending to be enthusiasts scrabble around fields digging up old dog bones. Or worse, actors who would otherwise remain unemployed dress up in old-fashioned togs and trot around saying things such as 'prithee, my lady'."

 

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